Lane reading Screwtape

I feel like I’ve linked to this before, but my brother is still going on his terrific series of rereading The Screwtape Letters as an atheist. Lane and I grew up with the works of C. S. Lewis pretty much right next to the Bible in prominence and influence, and I love his project of looking back on them to extract the good and criticize the bad.

Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:

Part Nine:

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humility is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome.

Part Ten:

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

Part Eleven:

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

He’s a smart dude and I’m proud to be related to him, is what I’m saying.

An open letter to a Christian trope

More specifically, this is an open letter to one Christian blogger who apparently ‘liked’ my post from earlier today and who wrote an open letter to doubters of god.  The letter I sent to him just a few minutes ago is quoted below.

[edited to fix formatting issues]


So, through and email notification, I was informed that you liked a post of mine from today.  The notification linked me to this post of yours:

As well as a couple others.  But I have only looked at this one, since it is, at least I think it’s intended to be, directed towards me (in part).
The reason I am writing to you is that you are making a common, but annoying, error here in your classification.  In order to try and educate you, I want to give you a brief run-down of who I am and what I (dis)believe.

Philosophically, I am a skeptic first.  Not in the tradition of radical skepticism from the ancient Greeks (although I appreciate that as well, to some degree) but as in the Skeptic movement, which is related (though there are tensions) to the atheist community.  Skepticism, in this sense, is the position whereby one accepts a proposition as true iff sufficient empirical and logical evidence has been demonstrated which supports said proposition.  In the case of theism a skeptic, if they are applying their skepticism, will hear the claim “god exists” and will ask for evidence, then iff evidence is presented (which should not be logically fallacious, is at least somewhat empirically demonstrated, and repeatable) then the skeptic can rationally accept the claim.  They should keep themselves open to new evidence always.

You don’t want to argue, so my point in the following is not to refute theism, per se, but rather to clearly explain my position.  I see no valid evidence for the existence of any gods. especially the ‘omnimax’ variety which tends to come from the Abrahamic religions.  I see YHWH/ALLAH/Jesus as a non-demonstrated proposed being, and I also see no evidence for any “philosophers’ god” or even a deism.  After many years of reading theology, religious apologetics, and criticisms of religion, I have concluded that no evidence for any gods exist.  If there are any gods, then I want to know.  So either none of the gods want me to know about them, the gods do not care, or there are no gods.  And if gods exist that don’t care whether I believe in them, then so what?
I am an agnostic-atheist.  That is, while I cannot, logically, disprove the general concept of god (specific gods which are logically impossible can be disproved, but not all gods are clearly defined enough for this), I lack belief because there is insufficient evidence.

In your post, you respond to agnostics and “militant atheists,” leaving out non-militant atheists.  In fact, I will point out that despite having been part of the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never met a militant atheist.  I’ve met some angry ones, and often their anger is justified (not always), but never a militant one.  In what way are atheists militant? Have we taken up arms? Have we been violent towards the religious (as a group; individual examples are anecdotal and do not address atheism per se.  Also, Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin/Mao/etc killed in the name of an absolutist political regimes, not atheism.  What person or group has done anything militant in the name of atheism?)?

I do not wish to eradicate religion.  I find that to be a fruitless goal.  My concern is with faith.  I see faith as a fundamental problem for human psychology, groups, and ultimately the progress towards greater understanding of the universe.  I’m using faith as it is defined in Hebrews, where it is belief in things not seen.  In other words, belief in things despite the lack of evidence.  This is a dangerous phenomenon.  Would you apply that methodology in any other aspect of your life besides religion or spiritual pursuits? Isn’t it fascinating that the more we understand the universe, the further away god is pushed into that gap of what we don’t know?  Compare the concept of god as it was understood hundreds, even thousands of years ago, and how modern theologians talk about god (the “ground of being” and such).  The more we can explain, the more vague and abstract gods become.

I find that fascinating–and telling!

But I don’t hate religion and want it gone merely because it does bad things. While I am very bothered by the many atrocities that people have committed in history, often in the name of some religion, god, or other type of doctrine, my larger concern is with the lack of critical thinking, skepticism, and willingness to transcend oneself towards a greater potential for humanity.  Skepticism, science, philosophy, and even humanism are what is needed, not superstition.
Your post does not seem to carry sufficient understanding of what an atheist is, what many of our goals are, and even what “militant” means.  So while I am not seeking to eradicate religion (I’d prefer people organically outgrew it, which I doubt will happen anytime soon), I am trying to eradicate poor comprehension of atheist arguments and tropes which perpetuate the othering of our community.  I have seen posts like this many times from Christian bloggers.  In fact, I looked at the date it was posted to make sure I had not read this post previously, since it was so predictable and trope-laden.

I suggest reading an atheist blog or two regularly.  Perhaps read a book by a former-Christian atheist, who can communicate that issue much better than I can.  I can refer you to some if you are interested, since there are many.  In fact, this one, by my friend Jerry DeWitt, was recently published and looks excellent (I have not read it yet).
But in general, keep up the conversation, so the next time you write a letter to agnostics and atheists, you at least have a better grasp of the relevant issues.  I wish you the best.

In reason,


Meaning of the Jesus Story; History v. mythology

I was just catching up on some blogs this morning and read Jerry Coyne’s thoughts on the virgin birth, the resurrection, and their importance in Christian (specifically Catholic) faith.  Towards the end, he says this:

…as has always been clear, the things that to Christians are non-negotiable “truths” of the Bible are those fables on which their faith rests most heavily. Therefore they can dispense with the parting of the Red Sea and the curing of lepers, [but] not with the Resurrection, which is the most important fable that Christians must accept as literal truth.

But if that’s the case, then why not treat Adam and Eve likewise?. For without the Original Duo, and Original Sin, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus would make no sense (as they say, “Did Jesus die for a metaphor?”).

It is a set of points that I have thought about (and probably written about) myself over the years.  But it got me thinking; How do we approach the significance of an idea depending on how historically reliable it is? How do we think about the meaning of an act if we think it really happened versus if it is a mythological metaphor for something? How do the standards of import differ in contrasting history from mythology?

If a friend took off work to do you a favor, that would be appreciated and would have some real import.  If a person were to push you out of the way of a car, saving your life and sacrificing theirs, that has more import.  For many, Jesus’ sacrifice, is seen as the superlative sacrifice.  Further, it transcends the mere saving of a short mortal life, and becomes the transformation of an eternal life.  We are all doomed to death/separation from god/whatever and Jesus steps in to take the bullet.  And many believe this really happened, and is not merely a metaphor.

But our litany of stories from various religious, philosophical, and cultural sources contains a multitude of stories with moral, social, and philosophical import, many of which attempt such universality.  And it is clear, at least to me, that these stories are myths, even if they contain some historical truth to any extent.  They are, in essence, products of our imagination.  The complicated morals, literary structures, etc that such stories convey, and often contain high moral and philosophical import, are fancy fabrications.

And while reality may occasionally, accidentally, resemble such fabrications in terms of narrative complexity, moral import, etc, the rule is that the design of mythology is better at creating meaning and import than reality.  A narrative with more complex interwoven philosophical themes, governing more broad area of impact and importance, is more likely to be mythology.  The story of the New Testament, with its universal import and intended (but ultimately failed) sacrificial plot, is a good example of a story which is clearly mythological, even if potentially based on historical facts.


So, the essence to my question today foes something like the following.  If I believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve, as well as the resurrection, were literal things that happened, does that mean that the import of the acts involved have more impact than if they were mere stories about the human experience? Would the fact that these actions really happened give them greater impact, emotionally and philosophically, than if they were mere stories?

Consider my example of someone taking off of work to help you with some problem; imagine that this story were part of a religious canon, rather than a thing that really happened to you.  If you found this story in the New Testament or the Koran, would you be impressed by it? Probably not.  But if someone really did this, for you or someone you know, it would have some importance and meaning, even if it were a small amount of such.  The fact that it is real gives it more import to your life, even if the act has less moral and philosophical complexity than mythology.

The thesis is that when things really happen, their personal and social importance is greater than if they were mythological.  Mythology has to be exaggerated, embellished, or at least rare to survive as a story of significance.  It may be that extraordinary real events inspire such mythology in some cases, but such stories always take on legendary status the more they are told and re-told, because story-tellers have to sell the story.  Thus, we will microfy the import of a story which is mythological because we understand that it is embellished, whereas reality, which sits in front of us, is not.

So, a story about a sacrifice, in order to be held as ultimate import, has to become embellished.  Religion, then, is part of our story-telling nature, and only stories with universal themes and import can survive to legendary status.  And while these stories sit behind our lives as an influence for our behavior and beliefs, reality continues on and we continue to act in less than superlative, but meaningful ways.

And many religious apologists argue that this is what makes religion great; it stands as an example for us and helps preserve our cultural norms and values in narrative form.  And for those that believe the stories are true, there is a greater amount of reverence towards those acts (and those who perform them), beyond mere inspiration.  But, for those people who don’t believe the literal truth of these religious stories,such stories can still remain as inspirational narratives, even if the non-historical nature of the story takes something away.

Of course, by not believing they literally happened, one can also criticize the import and morality of the lesson.  It seems more appropriate, for many, to criticize a story rather than a real act.  If we see Jesus as a metaphorical example, and not literally a person (or god) who “died” for our sins, then we can hold him up as an example (even if not a great one) of what humans can do for one-another.  But if he was (and is) god, then that fact puts the story on a level of import which dwarfs any mere myth.  The same story, depending on whether it is true or not, has different import.

But here’s the problem; if stories such as the all and the resurrection are literally true, including that a god is behind it all, then the distinction between mythology and reality breaks down in this respect.  The basis for real actions having inflated import is that such things occur within a real of minimal control over the circumstances, whereas in a story the composer has, well, god-like control over the circumstances.  A friend taking work off to help you is only in control of their own actions (taking off work and helping you), not the circumstances which led them to have to make that choice.

The story of Jesus, if we saw him as a mere human who acted in the real world, could be of great import as an inspiration towards sacrifice and love (assuming we ignore the non-loving stuff in there, of course).  But as an intentional creation of an all-powerful god, the Jesus story is designed, and poorly, because a better story could have been designed.  The world could have been different, the sacrifice unnecessary, and a greater story could have been written.  The more true the Bible is, the less powerful its story ultimately is; the more control the author of the story has, the less impressive it is.

As a set of inspirational stories, the New Testament has some philosophical and moral import on their own, but if Jesus was real and did a lot of the stuff in the gospel accounts, then the import increases because a person actually did those things, rather than them being idealistic narratives of some authors.  But if God is real, and god designed and orchestrated the whole thing, then I’m not impressed, because I think that I could write a better story than that.  God didn’t just compose the narrative of Jesus, but he also composed all of the circumstances which allowed them to be necessary.  In short, God is a terrible composer of stories (and universes).

The Bible, as a collection of stories, is a work of human minds and hands.  It takes the nature of the world, indifferent and often unpredictable, and comes up with a set of narratives which offer some consolation and moral import.  Bu those imports are inflated, exaggerated, and as a result they take on universal import through hyperbolic fabrication, rather than by being real.

We, with our imagination, intelligence  and articulate genius have come up with narratives which make reality look pale in comparison.  Our stories tell us about our dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears, and our height and depth of philosophical notions.  But what ends up mattering are the real acts, the non-miraculous human decisions,  which have a real effect on our lives.  Mythology might inspire,but it can only do so via exaggeration, by figurative flashing lights and shiny objects.

And, what’s worse is that the mythology, the meaning, of the essential Christian message is flawed and many subsequent stories have surpassed them in many ways.  Not only is the Christian message not truly universal, it isn’t even good.  So, not only should we not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection, we should not even be inspired by such things.  Fabricated acts have no real meaning in the world; they only can attempt to make reality seem pale in comparison, but often merely succeed in making themselves look artificial, forced, and Platonic.

So, while stories are fun and inspire the imagination, what ultimately matters is reality.  Give me friends and lovers over a million Jesuses (Jesi?) any day.

Praying for College Students? 10-10-10

So, apparently there is this thing called 10-10-10.  On August 10th, 2012, at 10AM, for 10 minutes, people are supposed to pray for all of the students headed off to college in a few weeks.

I never understood things like this.  I mean, I don’t believe prayer works, but even if I were to lend some legitimacy to prayer as an idea, are prayers which are done at a certain time, by many people, about a particular thing supposed to be more powerful?

Is this akin to getting a bunch of people to sign a petition to the president? (please sign that, BTW,if you already have not.)

Well, let’s take a look at Matthew 18:19 (ISV):

Furthermore, I tell you with certainty that if two of you agree on earth about anything you request, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven,

So, the book of Matthew claims that any two people who get together for a cause, and pray (appeal?) to sweet baby Jesus (or perhaps in his grown up avatar of old-bearded-white-guy.  Sort of like The Dude, but not as cool) then he shall do your bidding.  Something like that.  I personally never gave much thought to mentally controlling the universe through imaginary friends.

Image from the TV show ‘God, the Devil, and Bob.’ Apparently God (right) is an old hippie and Satan (left) was me in grad school. Except I drink beer. And I don’t have horns. Maybe.

What is clear here is that such a thing as 10-10-10 is not intended primary as a petition to the lord and creator of the universe.  It is intended as social media.  It is intended as a media campaign to get people to think about something.

Just not to do anything.

Because there is no reason, empirical, logical, etc, to think that prayer can accomplish anything.  Rather than waste time praying, we need to do.

And there are things we can do to help freshmen starting in college.  Hopefully, we have already worked towards giving them the best high school education we could, including excellent intellectual foundations in science, writing, and study habits.  Hopefully their parents, friends, and the world around them generally have given them good models for rational thinking, self-challenging, and emotional strength.

But now that there are people going off to be more independent, most for the first time, we can begin trusting them now.  We have to start thinking of them as adults, treating them as adults, and give them the wisdom of adult understanding of the world.

This means a healthy scientifically-based understanding of sexuality and safety.  It means at least a basic understanding of personal finances.  This means expectation of leaving your likely-parochial worldview; a preparedness to meet and interact with people with vastly different worldviews than they know.  It means these and many more things.

But in general, if we are concerned with students and young people in general, we need to be working, not praying, to make the world around us better.  We need to be educating ourselves, challenging our sacred or merely closely-held beliefs, and we need to address real problems head-on.

No god is going to help us.  Because if a god exists, it is clearly not interested in getting its ‘hands’ dirty.  The paltry, megalomaniacal, jealous god of many scriptures is not one I would depend on, even if I thought ‘He’ existed.  All evidence points to the only way we are going to get through this life is through mutual effort.

If I were the type of person to try and liberalize scripture to some warm-fuzzy interpretation, I would take Mt. 18:19, quoted above, as an ecumenical, almost secular message about working together.  It would mean that our actions, working together, would be the hand of some god, rather than our own effort.  But that is simply overly-metaphorical and ultimately anti-humanistic.

So, the next time I have a beer in my hand I will tip it in salute to all the new freshmen out there, as well as those getting ready to enter the “real world” at the end of the year.  Remember to challenge yourself, question your assumptions from time to time, and to get out and actually experience the world and other people.

Go out and have some (or a lot of) consensual sex, learn new things, develop a quirky hobby, listen to new music, read something not assigned by a professor, and occasionally have all night sessions of philosophical or personal discussions. In short I think students should learn, enjoy life, and transcend what they currently are.

Don’t take advice from conservative-minded people who seem afraid of “temptation” and leaving your confines of a tiny, religious, worldview.  More and more young people are leaving religion.  Let’s help that trend accelerate.  With the SSA around, I know that there are excellent people already doing so.

What do you think we can do to help students prepare for college or for life-after-college?

Gnosis, pt 2

In my last post, I wrote about my own ups and downs with knowledge and belief about God, and the several-years-long transitional phase where I was truly neither a theist nor an atheist. Today I want to dig into what I think was going on with that.

I’m inclined to compare my transitional phase with the apparent beliefs of a lot of non-theists who nonetheless talk about things like “the universe,” “fate,” or “karma” on a regular basis.  There’s a kind of animistic habit of mind which seems very common to human nature, which insists on attributing intention and consciousness to everything. It’s this habit of mind that remained when my explicit God-belief had vanished from my brain; it’s this habit of mind that made me say “God took away my belief in God.”

On top of that animistic habit, I had a deep and thorough understanding of an internally consistent Christian worldview. Everything that I perceived in the world could be interpreted through the lens of Christianity in a way that made sense on its own terms. Even my loss of belief could be interpreted that way. It did not require mental effort or self-deception to come up with an interpretation of the world that was consistent with Christianity: having grown up Christian, it was easy, almost second nature. That meant that it was still possible to continue believing in (a form of) Christianity with full intellectual integrity; what had changed was that it was also possible not to.

I did some studying; I read The God Delusion and some other writings; and I came to the conclusion that an atheist worldview was also internally consistent. I had hoped that there would be features of reality that couldn’t adequately be explained without a deity, but in my search I found none. I found myself looking at two complete, coherent accounts of reality, both plausible to me, both accounts that I could accept with full intellectual integrity, and entirely incompatible with each other. At that time in my life, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that I was a theist or an atheist. I found both believable, and consequently couldn’t truly believe either.

I said before that I don’t like to use the word “know” in relation to questions of theism, because of its ambiguity. But if asked at that time in my life whether I believed in a god or not, all I could have honestly said was “I don’t know.” For a few years there, I’d say I was a true agnostic, an agnostic lacking both knowledge and belief.

Halfway through those transitional years I returned to Christianity, not because either my beliefs or my assessments of the truth had changed, but because I wanted it to be true. Not a strong reason, but it was all I had. If I’d had more unbelieving friends at that time, it probably wouldn’t have happened — I’d probably have continued in my agnostic paralysis until the unbelieving neural pathways clicked into place. (I just made that up, but it’s a terrific way of thinking about it… the whole thing was basically like a gear shift, and there was a long period there where the chain was suspended, adjusting over the gears, neither one thing nor the other.) But I was lonely, and all but one of my close friends and family were Christian, so I was looking for a way back in. I never thought that my desire for the Christian God to be real made it more likely that he was real; I just seized on desire as an acceptable stand-in for “faith,” since I didn’t have any of that. And I was backed up in that interpretation by some statements in the first few chapters of Introduction to Christianity, by Joseph Ratzinger, who did rather well in the ranks of his faith profession.

I’ll write more about my ins and outs with religion later; now I have to go rant about truth!


In the last week or so, I’ve begun a project of going through the emails, blog posts, and private journal entries I wrote throughout my deconversion from Christianity. There are a lot of them, and I may pull them together into a book project in the near future, but for now I want to comment on some thoughts they’ve provoked.

One advantage to having detailed personal records like this is that they guard against hindsight bias and retroactive interpretation. I haven’t looked at most of these writings for years, and I find, looking back, that the story I tell now about the trajectory of my deconversion isn’t entirely accurate. When I want to give the short version of my history with religion, it goes something like this: I was raised in a conservative branch of Christianity and accepted it pretty much without question for the first 25 years of my life. Around the time I was 25, I began seriously questioning my faith, and actually stopped believing in God,  although I wasn’t happy about that. I was basically an atheist, though I didn’t use that word, for about a year and a half, then I found a definition of “faith” that allowed me to go back to calling myself a Christian, although never with the same kind of faith as before. Then, around my 29th birthday, the last reasons I had for clinging to Christianity fell away, and I became a full-fledged atheist.

That’s the short version, and it’s broadly accurate, but in retrospect I missed a lot of the complicated nature of that in-between time, between “Yes I am definitely a Christian” and “Yes I am definitely an atheist.” For those who have never had God-belief as an element of their psyche, it might be difficult to understand exactly what was going on there, and it certainly muddies the definitions of “belief” and “knowing” that I’ve been using in the last couple of years. So let me try to explain it.

During part 1, the Christian part of my life, I absolutely believed in God. I would have found it impossible not to. Even if someone had rationally convinced me that there was no good reason to believe in God, I’d have been nodding along and saying, “You’re right, there isn’t a good reason to believe,” and wondering the whole time what God thought of this conversation. It was not something I was consciously maintaining or defending: it was just there, in my brain, a part of the way I thought about the world. To say “I don’t believe in God” would have been a lie, even if I had wanted to disbelieve and had every rational cause for disbelief.

At this time in my life, nearly the opposite is true. If evidence for a god’s existence started springing up all over the place, that internal state of belief still wouldn’t appear in my brain, at least not immediately. I could acknowledge, “Yes, given a Bayesian probability analysis it seems overwhelmingly likely that a deity is the cause of these things we are witnessing,” but in the back of my head I’d still be thinking, “But there can’t really be a deity… let’s keep looking for other explanations!”

It’s important to note before I go further that neither of these belief-states are unchangeable: as evidenced by the fact that my first one did eventually change. I’m no neuroscientist, but my guess is that these belief-states are simply strong neural patterns, habits of thinking that can’t be changed instantly, but only worn away over time as new patterns are developed and rehearsed.

The middle state, that transitional period of 3-4 years, is where things are weird. The things that were going on in my brain at that time don’t fit into a simple category of belief and knowing. The moment that really kicked off that whole transitional phase of my life was a moment where my rock-solid, undeniable belief in God was removed: and my emotional response was anger at God for removing it.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I stopped believing in God, and I was angry at God for making me stop believing in him. Clearly, then, on some level I still believed in God, and interpreted even my unbelief through a theistic worldview. But something very significant had changed in my brain, and the best way I could put it to myself was that I had lost my belief.

This state continued, by the way, even after I reclaimed a “Christian” identity. My state of belief didn’t change very much during this time; instead I changed my definition of “faith” to give myself a way back in. My reasons for doing that belong in another post, but from the point of view of mental states of belief and knowing, I didn’t change very much during those 3-4 years.

In atheist circles there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the difference between knowledge, belief, and certainty (prompted mostly by Richard Dawkins’ “shocking” revelation that he wasn’t 100% certain that no god existed, which anyone who’s actually read The God Delusion already knew (actually, anyone who’s read the subtitle of The God Delusion should have known: the word almost is there for a reason, people)). The relevant ground has been pretty thoroughly covered (and is being added to by Shaun even as I write… we’ll see which of us posts first! (I have a parenthetical addiction, by the way; I try not to use at all, because when I start it gets hard to stop)), so all I want to add is my own experience, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the tidy “atheist/theist” “gnostic/agnostic” categories.

At no point in my life have I been 100% certain that my beliefs about God or gods were accurate. Even aside from evil genius / brain in a jar / Matrix scenarios, I recognize that my foundational assumptions about what constitutes a good basis for knowledge are just that: assumptions, that could be incorrect. I do the best I can with what I have.

I don’t use the word “know” a lot with reference to theism, just because its meaning is too ambiguous. Some people use “knowledge” synonymously with “certainty” (in which case I am an agnostic atheist), some people use it in less absolute terms (in which case I might be a gnostic atheist, depending on how severely you draw the line), and some people equivocate (in which case I’m not playing.)

Belief, now, is a harder question. I don’t think belief is a simple idea, based on my own experience. If all I’d ever experienced were those two states of initial full belief and present full unbelief, I probably would think it was simple. But my transitional phase leads me to think that there are several different strains or mechanisms of belief, which in most people (perhaps) are concordant, but which can also be conflicting. With part of my brain I believed in God, and with part of it I did not, and that was a very different mental state from the ones that came before and after.

Next up: digging a little deeper into the anatomy of that in-between time.

Is Christianity Good for America?

It seems the title of the debate may have changed a bit since it was announced

So, last night I attended the debate between Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, and Dinesh D’Souza who is an author and professional defender of Christianity.  Dave Silverman I have known for many years, and I was glad to get a chance to talk with him before the debate about how he was feeling about it.  It is always a question concerning what kind of reception an atheist debater will encounter, even in a liberal city such as Philadelphia.

Dinesh D’Souza was in the room as well, but I refrained from talking to him despite having lots of things I could have asked him.  I had not previously met Dinesh, and my “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” shirt might have put him off, a bit.  It was not the right time or place, and there would be a time for questions after the debate (I did get a chance to ask one, too).

The debate took place at the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania in University City (West Philly), so it was in my neck of the woods.  The hall was not packed, but it was full enough.  It was clear, from the level of clapping and cheering at certain times, that Dinesh brought a larger contingent, but I did see a fair showing of the Philly atheist community including Margaret Downey, Carl Silverman, and Staks Rosch.  I wonder if the rain might have kept some people away as well, even though it had not rained much around the event.

Also joining me was my friend Honest Discussioner who had come into town for the day.  We had spent much of the afternoon at the OccupyPhilly events around city hall,  as we are both interested in the Occupy movement and wish to better understand its developing message as well as where it will go as a movement.  He took some video and there will be both vlogs and blogs upcoming concerning that issue.  For now, I will skip any commentary concerning that and dive right into the debate.

We all have the same facts

Dave Silverman started things off with a 12-minute argument about why Christianity is not good for America.  “We all have the same facts” he said, and the facts, he thinks, point to Christianity not being good for America.

Dave laid out three metrics to address this question; society, science, and sex.  His basic argument was that with issues like marriage rights, women’s rights, science education, and sex education, the effect of Christian belief on social policies is detrimental to our culture.

Pointing to the many other western democracies and their relative secularization and societal health (of which the US is an outlier), it seems clear that the less religious a nation is, it is likely to be healthier.  These statistics have existed for some time and have been a core part of the argument for whether religion actually makes societies better.  And while it is not proof, the data seems to indicate that you can have a healthy society without a prevalence of religion.  Dave goes the next step and argues that it is evidence that religion, specifically Christianity in this case, has a detrimental effect of society.  I think the case for this is strong, even if it is not absolute.  But is anything absolute when it comes to science?


Athens and Jerusalem
Depiction of Paul in Athens (cf. Acts 17:16-34)

Dinesh D’Souza’s opening argument was not surprising, coming from a person who has heard him debate before.  His argument boils down to the claim that the philosophical foundation of American political structures, culture, and values are dependent upon the philosophical and political influence of the ancient Greeks (Athens) as well as the cultural and theological influence of Christianity (Jerusalem).  Whether it is Ivy League schools, inalienable rights, or the civil rights movement, Dinesh sees the roots for all of these things within the Christian tradition.  I will not dispute the role of Athens, and certainly Christianity has had a great role in American history, but Dinesh’s claim here is stretched too far.

Perhaps his most outlandish claim was that the institution of slavery, in America at least, was questioned exclusively by Christianity.  He seems unaware of the influence of socialist activists and other abolitionist movements from early on which were not affiliated with Christianity.  It is true that many churches did take part in these movements, and in the 1960’s their role was critical, but to claim that this was exclusively a Christian struggle is simply not true.

As is common for Christians who take a more “nuanced” perspective on theology, D’Souza claimed that it was only a small percentage of the Christian community that is opposed to science (specifically evolution).  Within the liberal Christian circles in which Dinesh and other religious academics swim, I have no doubt that this is true.  But in the United states belief in evolution is not dominant (except among those with higher education, like Dinesh and his colleagues).  Among most people, Evolution falls behind creationism.

December 2010 Gallup Poll (click for full article)

Again, this is correlation and not proof.  But as Dave Silverman points out, the fact that religious conservatives push so hard against evolution, stem cell research, etc is indicative of there being a disjoint between science and Christian theology.  It is the evangelicals, after all, that take the scripture more literally than educated academics.  And as I (and again) as well as many others have argued, there is a profound methodological and epistemological difference between theology and skepticism (the scientific method and reason).  Despite the fact that moderate and educated Christians tend to accept evolution, they still don’t seem to grasp the implications of the scientific method upon revelation and dogma.

In fact, this very fact came to light in conversations with some audience members after the debate; scientific empirical methodology is quite alien to both theologians and many philosophically minded people (especially the postmodernists). In a discussion about the possibility of a soul or life after death with what appeared to be UPenn students, reference to established scientific research by neuroscientists only brought questions of the assumptions about naturalism, and not understanding that these experiments and their results actually happened.  There was, quite clearly, a disconnect between the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.  It is a common misunderstanding that I believe Dinesh may also be guilty of.

Christianity’s influence today

D’Souza claimed that the foundations of the wonderful society in which we live is due to Christianity.  Silverman, in response to this, asks “what about today?”  In other words, even if Christianity was good for the foundations of our society (a point Dave does not concede), is it still good today given the detrimental efforts of people who act based upon their adherence to Christian theology.  It’s a fair question. Dinesh’s answer is that the values we have, even as secular people, is standing on the mountain built by Christianity.  Our moral intuition is given to us by god (and not just any god, but Jesus).  His assertion is that without this scaffolding, which cannot be replaced with theories based in evolution or any other purely naturalistic worldview, we could not have the values we have.  Further, our blessed science was even given to us by people committed to Christianity, such as Kepler, Newton, etc.

We are a secular world standing on the shoulders of Christian giants, Dinesh D’Souza seems to be saying.

Dave concedes, as he should, that Christians (which he distinguishes from Christianity, which Dinesh seems to miss every time he talks about this) have indeed done many great things in the world.  They help others, achieve great things, and are often wonderful people.  Dave sees this, and I agree, as giving the credit to the theology rather than the humanity of these people who do the good things.  This is stealing credit from humanity and giving it to Christianity, the sources of which are often opposed (scripturally) to many of the achievements of post-Enlightenment society.  This, in my opinion, is what makes Christianity so bad not only for America, but as Dave Silverman closed his comments, merely bad.

It is the usurping of what is good about us and claiming that we cannot possibly achieve these things without Jesus.  It is the claim that we are fallen, fundamentally broken (or as John Calvin put it, total depravity), and in need of a fix.  It is the creation of a problem that is then turned around, like a good salesman, into a sales pitch.  Not only does Christian mythology create the problem of our fall from grace, it presumes to provide the cure of redemption.  It is god’s cure for a problem he was responsible for.  It is absurd, anti-humanistic, and ultimately anti-life (thank you Nietzsche).


Dave responded to Dinesh a few times during the debate by saying that Dinesh presented no actual arguments for why Christianity is good.  I think what he means by this is that Dinesh’s claims about Christianity being the foundation for American culture, politics, and society are spurious, there is a difference between Christianity and the people who claim the title (especially since most Christians are not consistent or coherent in their theology), and that the negative effects of Christianity, even if there are positives, far outweigh the good.  I think Dave Silverman is right here (anyone surprised?).

The only point that Dinesh has room to argue is that Christianity does deserve its place at the table in America.  However, while it deserves this right, this place cannot be a privileged one.  People have a right to vote for candidates who reflect their views, to believe as they wish as private citizens, and religious ideas will exist in the larger public conversation about policy, legislation, etc.  However, the position of Christianity to influence those who do not believe is imbalanced and often oppressive.  And even if there are secular arguments, as Dinesh proposes there are,  against things like abortion, gay marriage, etc it is clear that the overwhelming majority of political pressure in these areas are derived from Christian theology and not secular arguments.

(And, I believe, even those secular arguments are founded upon largely Christian foundations, even if those secular commentators don’t realize it)

Upon Poor Foundations?

The bottom line for me is that even if Christianity was the primary foundation of our western culture, and without it we would not have the concepts we think of as secular now, that does not necessarily make those foundations nor their effects good.  I could point out the fundamental problems of our western world, as focused on by the OccupyEverywhere movement and other social commentary, and show that Dinesh’s argument seems problematic even if valid.  That is, even if he is right in his claims about Christianity’s role in our American society and culture, it seems that the influence was either incomplete (in other words, the imperfections are evidence of our fallen nature), or that God’s plan for American was not to be a good Christian example.  Oh wait, or there is no God intervening in history.

The fact is that our culture is in need of growth in terms of economics, emotional maturity, and education.  Christianity is not the source of skeptical inquiry, the scientific method (which grew around Christianity like a tree grows despite the obstacle of a fence), or of our Constitution.  So, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, which Dinesh D’Souza made reference to (and which has no legal standing in America today), this nation is not philosophically, theologically, or historically indebted to a “Creator” even if there is one.

The idea of freedom of and from religion, the separation of church and state, and the general establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution is a powerful protection from Christianity to those who wish to steer clear of it’s discriminatory and archaic ideals.  Yes, Christians have grown and changed with the times, in reaction to the enlightenment and other historical breaking from the bondage of religious power, but Christianity still has a scriptural source which is tied to a barbaric ideology.

No matter how intellectual, nuanced, and sophisticated theology becomes, Christianity cannot outrun its essence or its bronze-age past.  Whether in terms of the horrors it has caused, the poor worldview it presents, nor the ignorance it perpetuates, Christianity is no friend to any person and so is therefore no friend to America.

Dinesh D’Souza may claim that things such as forgiveness, universal brotherhood, or the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of god are what is central about Christianity, but that forgets so much more of what the scriptures tell us.  There is also a redemption for crimes we are not responsible for (the Fall), support for slavery, and multitudes of atrocities beyond anything we would consider acceptable today.  If this scriptural tradition is the work of the creator and value-giver of America, we are indeed doomed.  Yes, one can visit the cafeteria of the Bible and choose what one likes (as Dinesh claims not to do), but to take it all in context is to see a tradition that is not good for America or anywhere else.


Is this a win for Dave Silverman? Is this a win for secularism and/or atheism?  I don’t think debates are about that.  Surely, most of the people there left with the same opinion they had.  But ideas get planted, discussion continues, and we move forward.  Little by little atheist messages are heard, absorbed, and we slowly become part of the conversation.

Christianity is in a privileged cultural position, and its tentacles reach deep into our American psyche for sure.  But around these tentacles lie aspects of our humanity which are evolutionarily and historically prior to Christian thought.  On top of all that are secular ideas derived from philosophy, science, and in some cases rejection of religion.  Nietzsche is a good example of this latter.

The fact that religion usurps these ideas and cloaks them in theological language is why it seems to so many that it is Christianity which is the foundation for all of these ideas.  This is an illusion.  This is what religion does; it often will attach itself to ideas and claim them as their own.  And the longer we don’t point this usurpation out, the more the original idea and theology intertwine until we cannot tell them apart.  After enough time of this process the sophisticated, nuanced, and evolving liberal Christians don’t even realize they have done so, and they genuinely believe that the Christianity they carry is a coherent descendant of the teaching of the Old Testament, Paul, and the Gospels.

We need people like Dave Silverman to keep indicating this delusion.  Keep it up, Dave.

Kirk Cameron on marriage: The blind leading the blind


Ow, that hurt,  But not as much as reading this:

Woman with a Mancard: My Night at Kirk Cameron’s Marriage-Strengthening Event

Now, I’ve found Kirk Cameron’s Christian antics annoying for many years.  Since my friend Brian Sapient debated him and his Sith master Ray Comfort back in 2007, I have found him to be a pretty dense tool (almost as bad as Tof Friel, really), but this recent event just makes me want to scream with frustration.

Now, I want to write more substantially about the concept of marriage in the next day or so (mostly because I just got engaged to the lovely Ginny), but for now I want to say a few quick things about the idea of marriage, relationships in general, and the role of men and women in them.  I want to say these things because I think that the current model of marriage in the evangelical Christian community is poisonous for both men and women, advocates an immature way for men and women to communicate and interrelate, and just generally sucks giant troll balls.

And what’s worse, it informs many of our ‘traditional’ definitions of marriage.

Kirk Cameron advocates a model of marriage with the man (and there always will be a man, as marriage is defined as an institution between one man and one woman of course), is supposed to “play the role of Jesus Christ to your wife.”  There is no equality, no real sense of compromise, and certainly no meaningful feminism here.  The man is unambiguously in charge of his wife.  This is not a relationship of equals, but one of a power relationship.  Just as we are to obey God, the wife is to obey the husband.  Sure, if he has “crossed the line” (meaning, is emotionally/physically abusive) then he is not “protecting her” (because that is part of his job, of course) and is not doing his job well. But I doubt that divorce would be an option, as god ordained these marriages, and only we can fail in them;  not god.

This is but one of the many aspects of current Christian trends that makes me feel sick.  It promotes clearly obsolete gender roles, places people (specifically women) in a place of subservience (and not in the fun and kinky way that some women like, although I’m sure there is some overlap), and (again) it promotes vigorous suction on the balls of the troll which may or may not live under the bridge near your house.  His name is Ted.

The irony for me is that many people in our culture, even less batshit nutzoid people than Kirk Cameron, think that gay marriage or polyamorous marriage (not to be confused with the often harmful polygamous marriage) is unhealthy while finding this version of marriage proposed by evangelicals to be relatively healthy.  At least (they may say) they are really committed to each other.  Or they may say that at least it is the way god intended marriage to be.  This is an indication of a fundamental disease at the root of our culture when it comes to thinking about marriage and gender roles. There is no wonder that divorce and teen pregnancy rates are higher among so-called red states; it is these areas which are more prone to this unhealthy model of marriage.

I love my future wife.  I love her in a way that a man who sees himself as the master of his wife simply cannot.  I am genuinely interested in seeing her free, fulfilled, and treated as the equal that she is.  I cannot, not would I try, to “put my foot down” or to make a proclamation about what will be what.  It may be hard, we may disagree, but we will communicate openly about all of our desires, fears, and joys. Further, she loves me (this I know, for the Bible…wait, never mind…).  She desires me to be fulfilled, free, and will allow me to be who I am, genuinely, inside.  Neither of us has to pretend.  We don’t have to strive for some fantasy ideal or deny aspects of our selves in sacrifice for our relationship, because our relationship is about a celebration of our selves.

I will put my relationship against that between Kirk Cameron and his wife any day of the week.  Any man who sees his wife as subservient, who plays off of old cultural roles for each spouse without any hint of skepticism towards their ideological merit, or who gives men “man cards” which their wives are not even allowed to see is a weak and cowardly man.  His worldview is weak and cowardly, and it is a conservative worldview whose influence stretches beyond the evangelical Christian world, but surely dominates that world.

I know too many people, men and women (they are really boys and girls, even in their late 20’s or 30’s) who are inexperienced sexually, relationship-wise, and therefore emotionally stunted.  They see this ideal life and marriage set up before them and do not relent even as they fail over and over to find it’s reality.  They believe that Jesus will provide for them, and cannot see their own blindness.

And many of these “values” seep into mainstream culture, where (outside of the educated upper middle class generation I grew up around) these ideas are still held with reverence.  Heteronormative monogamous male-dominated marriage is more the norm than I think many of us educated and elitist types want to admit–and possibly more than we realize.  This idea of the traditional marriage, which is not even traditional if we want to be truly historical about it, is what is doing damage to real human relationships.  Not gay marriage.  Not polyamorous people who are married and who may want a legalized polyamorous marriage.

It is the closed-minded version of what god wants, what is right, what is ‘Merican even, that will destroy our relationships.

[/end rant]